Release Date: April 1, 2016
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Despite being a Christian, I’ve never really made an effort to watch Christian films (unless you count the sword-and-sandal epics from the 50s and 60s). I’ve seen Kirk Cameron’s cheesy Left Behind and End of the Spear, the latter which is actually a pretty great film covering a real-life incident involving missionaries trying to reach the Waodani tribe in South America. I’ve heard that Christian movies have a tendency to be rather preachy, only being accepted by Christians and not appealing at all to non-Christians. They also have such strict moral codes in being put together (no naughty words, violence, sexual content) that they end up looking like an alternate reality. After hearing so much criticism of Christian movies I decided to actually go see one with some fellow believers.
God’s Not Dead 2 is, as the title implies, the sequel to another movie, which came out just last year. The first film was a Christian student being harassed and then debating an Atheist philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo. I didn’t actually see it, but have read several summaries and seen a couple reviews with footage, so I was able to understand what some of the returning characters had gone through.
This time it’s a teacher in trouble. The very Christian-named high school teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) answers a Brooke’s (a student played by Hayley Orrantia) questions about similarities between Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. Since she quotes a passage from the Bible to further the comparisons, she gets in hot water with the school board, who believe she has used her classroom to proselytize. Refusing to claim she did anything wrong, she ends up in court.
Christian films are known for having poor acting. Thankfully, that problem is heavily alleviated here. Most of the characters from the first film are a little bland in their portrayals, but they actually got some good talent this time. Jesse Metcalfe is pretty likeable as Grace’s lawyer, Tom Endler, while famed singer Pat Boone is charming and funny as Grace’s grandfather Walter Wesley. The recently-deceased Fred Thompson has a pretty brief scene too as an elder pastor. But the best part of the movie is Ray Wise as an atheist ACLU prosecutor Peter Kane. Often having character actor roles in TV shows, Ray Wise is also known for his creepy, sinister smile. He really overdoes that smile as Peter Kane, at one point even evilly delighting in a pastor getting taken off the jury because he collapses. It ironically makes him the most delightful part the film.
But Wise’s acting is also part of a problem with this film. All of the Christians are portrayed as sweet people, while the atheists are just plain evil. Their two main facial expressions are mad glare and smug smirk. While there are doubtlessly atheists like that out there, they are a minority. I don’t think every atheist is constantly scheming about how he can destroy Christianity. This makes the movie very inaccessible to non-Christian viewers. I find it unlikely that any non-believer would find Christianity appealing when Christian filmmakers show him as a constantly irate villain who’s out to squash any Christianity he sees and take Duck Dynasty off the air (this franchise has a real obsession with that show). Unlike the first film, there’s at least an exception this time. Grace’s defense lawyer Tom Endler is a non-believer, but earnestly believes he is fighting for the rights of an innocent woman. Another positive change from the first film is in the subplots. Apparently the first movie was chock-full of subplots that had nothing to do with the main story, except that they all end up at a Newsboys concert at the end. In God’s Not Dead 2 there are a couple subplots which get a little tangential, but they all find a way to tie into the courtroom drama. I genuinely enjoyed one following a recently-concerted Chinese student who is visited and disowned by his atheist father. This is probably because it focuses on actual full-fledged persecution of Christians in China and other countries.
The courtroom drama itself is so-so. The case would have been thrown out quickly, since Grace did not proselytize at all. Sure, the parents of Brooke are the ones who make a big deal out of it, but I’m pretty sure the judge and the lawyers on both sides would dismiss it right off the bat. Some of the arguments of Tom Endler are pretty good, but I feel like he could have gone further to present a more convincing case. The most interesting part (besides Ray Wise’s acting) is when Endler tries to prove that Jesus is a historical figure, since this would make it appropriate for Grace to talk about him in a history class. They actually got the authors of Case for Christ (Lee Strobel) and Cold Case Christianity (J. Warner Wallace) to appear. They end up being the most compelling parts of the courtroom drama since they basically explain what their books are about and how they prove Jesus’ existence. I myself really want to read Cold Case sometime. Otherwise, the courtroom drama is full of atheist caricatures and its resolution is a bit of a cop-out.
God’s Not Dead 2 is an alright film, though it’s portrayal of atheists is troubling. It also exaggerates how Christians are treated in America. It states that their rights are constantly being trampled on by angry lawyers and school boards and occasionally this does happen (the film even references an actual event in Houston, Texas when pastors were almost forced to hand over their sermons for examination). But it’s so one-sided with little room for a gray area that it effectively can only be enjoyed by Christians. I hope the third film, which was teased after the end credits, will examine both sides of the issues of church and state more objectively, but I doubt that.
Final Rating: 4/10